Stephen Collins Foster, the ninth of William B. and Eliza T. Foster's ten children (plus a son fathered by William before the marriage and later raised as their oldest child), was born July 4, 1826, in a white cottage high on the hillside above the Allegheny River in Lawrenceville, east of Pittsburgh. The tenth child died as an infant, leaving Stephen as the "baby" of the family to be indulged by older brothers and sisters.
Foster's life has become part of American legend. One thread of the tale is that he detested school and so was poorly educated. In truth, as a young boy Stephen evinced more interest in music than in other subjects. But as the child of a middle-class family in an era before tax-supported public education, he variously was privately tutored, then schooled at private academies in Pittsburgh and in north-central Pennsylvania. He expressed a distaste for rote learning and recitation, but was an avid reader and eventually became a literate, well-educated person by the standards of his day.
He was musically literate as well; he probably received some formal musical training from a German immigrant, Henry Kleber, an accomplished and versatile musician who eventually exerted a major influence on Pittsburgh's musical life as a performer, composer, music merchant, impresario, and teacher.
As a teen, Foster enjoyed the friendship of young men and women from some of Pittsburgh's most prosperous and respectable families. Stephen, his brother Morrison, and his close friend, Charles Shiras, were all members of an all-male secret club called Knights of the S.T. [probably Square Table] that met twice weekly at the Fosters' home. One of their principal activities was singing, with Stephen acting first as song leader and then composer. Some of his earliest songs--perhaps including "Oh! Susanna"--were composed for the group. His first published song, "Open Thy Lattice Love", appeared from a Philadelphia music publisher when Stephen was only 18.
At age 20, Stephen went to work as a bookkeeper for his brother Dunning's steamship firm in Cincinnati. There he also sold some of his songs and piano pieces to a local music publisher and had his first big hit with "Oh! Susanna." In 1850, already with 12 compositions in print, the 24-year-old Stephen returned to Pittsburgh, married 20-year-old Jane Denny MacDowell, and launched his career as a professional songwriter. Their daughter Marion was born the following year. In 1852 the couple took a delayed honeymoon, a month-long steamship ride to New Orleans with friends, the only trip Stephen ever made to the deep south (he had visited Ohio River towns in Kentucky as a child). In 1853, he went to New York to be near his publishers; Jane joined him in Hoboken, N.J., sometime in 1854. They returned to Pittsburgh later that year, living first in the family home and then a series of boarding houses after both of his parents died in 1855.
Another thread in the mythic fabric is that Foster dashed off perfect masterpieces in a flash of inspiration, songs expressing the sentiment of American ante-bellum South. Yet, aside from these absences, visits to the family in Ohio, and until he went to New York for good in 1860, Stephen spent much of his life in Pittsburgh where he worked consistently at his songwriting, keeping a thick sketchbook to draft ideas for song lyrics and melodies. As a professional songwriter of unparalleled skill and technique--not an untutored musical genius--he had made it his business to study the various music and poetic styles circulating in the immigrant populations of the new United States. His intention was to write the people's music, using images and a musical vocabulary that would be widely understood by all groups. Foster worked very hard at writing, sometimes taking several months to craft and polish the words, melody, and accompaniment of a song before sending it off to a publisher. His sketchbook shows that he often labored over the smallest details, the right prepositions, even where to include or remove a comma from his lyrics.
Rather than writing nostalgically for an old South (it was, after all, the present day for him), or trivializing the hardships of slavery, Foster sought to humanize the characters in his songs, to have them care for one another, and to convey a sense that all people--regardless of their ethnic identities or social and economic class--share the same longings and needs for family and home. He instructed white performers of his songs not to mock slaves but to get their audiences to feel compassion for them. In his own words, he sought to "build up taste...among refined people by making words suitable to their taste, instead of the trashy and really offensive words which belong to some songs of that order." Stephen Foster was a man with a mission, to reform black-face minstrelsy, then the most pervasive and powerful force in American popular culture.
It is possible that Foster's sense of mission was aided and encouraged by his boyhood friend and artistic collaborator, Charles Shiras. Pittsburgh was a center for abolitionist activities in Pennsylvania, and Shiras was a leader of the movement. Inspired by local appearances by William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, Shiras launched a crusading abolitionist newspaper, and subsequently published a volume of anti-slavery and anti-capitalist verse. He and Stephen wrote at least one song together, and a stage work that was performed but never published and is now lost.
Though another thread of the myth romantically portrays Stephen Foster as such a pure artist that he had no business sense and squandered all his wealth, in fact he kept his own account books, documenting down to the penny how much his publishers paid him for each song, and he calculated his probable future earnings on each piece. His contracts were written out in his own hand; they are the earliest ones we know of between American music publishers and individual songwriters.
In reality, Foster was not an idle street musician without direction in his life, he was a pioneer. There was no music business as we know it (sound recording was not invented until 13 years after his death; radio, 66 years); no system of publishers and agents vying to sell new songs; no "performing rights" fees from restaurant singers or minstrels or theater musicians or concert recitalists; no way of earning money except through a 5-to-10 percent royalty on sheet music sales of his own editions by his original publisher, or though the outright purchase of a song by a publisher. There was no way to know whether or not he was being paid for all the copies his publisher sold; there were no attorneys specializing in authors' rights. Copyright law protected far less than it does today: Foster earned nothing for other arrangers' settings of his songs, broadside printings of his lyrics, or for other publishers' editions of his music. In today's music industry he would be worth millions of dollars a year; on January 13, 1864, he died at age 37 with 38 cents in his pocket and a penciled scrap of paper that read, "dear friends and gentle hearts." His brother Henry described the accident in the New York theater-district hotel that led to his death: confined to bed for days by a persistent fever, Stephen tried to call a chambermaid, but collapsed, falling against the washbasin next to his bed and shattering it, which gouged his head. It took three hours to get him to the hospital, and in that era before transfusions and antibiotics, he succumbed after three days.
While still an amateur songwriter, Foster realized that the minstrel stage was the key to securing an audience for his songs. At first, he circulated manuscript copies among various minstrel troupes. After "Oh! Susanna" became a national hit following its performance by the Christy Minstrels in 1848, the song was widely pirated by more than two-dozen music publishing firms, who earned tens of thousands of dollars from sheet music sales. But Foster received a mere $100 from a single firm in Cincinnati. In that regard, "Oh! Susanna" was a financial failure for Foster, but he learned two valuable lessons: one, his potential to earn significant sums from songwriting and, two, the need to protect his artistic property. During 1848 and 1849, eight more of his minstrel songs were published, including "Uncle Ned," and "Nelly Was a Lady." Determined to make a full-time career of writing songs, Foster left his bookkeeping job in Cincinnati and returned to Pittsburgh in late 1849 or early 1850. On December 3, 1849, he signed a contract with the New York music publisher, Firth, Pond, & Co., thus officially beginning his professional career.
At first, Foster wrote ballads and dances for parlor singers and pianists as well as minstrel songs, often referred to as "Ethiopian" songs, for professional theatrical performers. The minstrel songs, like the ballads, had simple melodies and accompaniments, but their texts, written in dialect, depicted African-American slaves as simple, good-natured creatures. Some of his earliest minstrel texts even had crude caricatures and terms, i.e. "Away Down Souf" (1848) and one verse that was later deleted form "Oh! Susanna."
But as Foster grew more ambivalent about the earlier "Ethiopian" songs, he began offering a different image, that of the black as a human being experiencing pain, love, joy, even nostalgia. "Nelly Was a Lady" (1849) is an eloquent lament of a slave for his loved one who has died, apparently the first song written by a white composer for the white audience of the minstrel shows that portrays a black man and woman as loving husband and wife, and insists on calling the woman a "lady," which was a term reserved for well-born white women. "Angelina Baker" (1851) similarly laments a slave who has been sent away by "old Massa." "Ring, Ring de Banjo!" (1851), despite its apparent surface of frivolity, has the slave/singer leaving the plantation "while the ribber's running high," a reference to escaping while the bloodhounds could not pick up his scent, and traveling to freedom on the Underground Railroad. "Old Folks at Home" (1851), which was to become the most popular of all Foster's songs, conveys a sentiment that had almost universal appeal--yearning for lost home, youth, family, and happiness. Increasingly, the "Ethiopian" songs used the same musical style that Foster created for his parlor ballads.
Foster informed Christy that--as we would put it today--he was trying to reform minstrelsy by writing texts suitable to refined taste, instead of "trashy and really offensive words," and that certain of his songs should be performed in a pathetic, not a comic style. (By "pathetic," Foster meant "to engender compassion.") Foster also began using the term "plantation song" for his new compositions, many of which were gentle and nostalgic in text with music that hinted at Irish or Italian ancestry. Soon he dropped dialect altogether from his texts and eventually referred to his songs as "American melodies." The verse-chorus structure of these songs made them suitable for both the minstrel stage and the parlor. In addition to "Old Folks at Home," some of Foster's characteristic songs of this type from the early 1850s are:
"Farewell, My Lilly Dear" (1851)
"My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night" (1853)
"Old Dog Tray" (1853)
"Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair" (1854)
During this period, Foster also turned his hand to instrumental music aimed very specifically for the parlor. The "Social Orchestra," published in 1854 by Firth, Pond, & Co., was a compendium of 73 arrangements for flute, violin, piano, and other instruments. The selections ranged from operatic--including thirteen tunes by Donizetti--and classical--Jullien, Abt, Mozart, and Schubert--to popular airs, including his own. The collection was ideal for informal home entertainment; the arrangements lent themselves to various combinations and numbers of instruments and included many tunes for dancing, a favorite parlor pastime. The collection proved to be very popular, but for Foster it was not a money-maker. He received a flat fee of only $150 from the publisher, which may explain why this was his only venture into instrumental arranging. Foster occasionally composed piano pieces, but song writing was his real forte, and he returned to it once the "Social Orchestra" was completed.
Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More," published in early 1855, was both a reflection of recent events in his personal life and a portent of things to come. He and Jane separated for a time in 1853 and his close friend, Charles Shiras, died during that same period. During 1855, both his parents died. His song output diminished--only four new songs in that year--and his debts increased. He was forced to draw advances from his publishers, then found himself unable to supply the new new songs he had promised them.
As the Civil War approached, Foster's once-promising songwriting career seemed to be doomed. His contracts with his publisher had ended, and he had sold all future rights to his songs to pay his debts. Possibly in an effort to revive his popularity, Foster reverted to writing plantation melodies. Of the four he wrote in 1860, one is among his most memorable (and infamous) compositions--"Old Black Joe." Belying the racial condescension its title epitomizes in the Civil Rights era, "Old Black Joe" comes closest of Foster's famous songs to the African-American spiritual, and it approaches that tradition with sympathy and respect. It is like a secular hymn, praising the noble spirit of the laborer at the end of his life.
Sometime during that year, Stephen finally left Pittsburgh and moved his family to New York. About one year later, Jane took Marion back to Pennsylvania, and Stephen spent the remaining few years of his life in New York, living alone in lodging houses and theater district hotels. His trunk of manuscripts and letters was lost somewhere in these moves. Because of the uncertain economy of war time, he no longer could get a publishing contract, and like all other songwriters was forced to sell his compositions outright to publishers with no prospect of future earnings. Instead of writing his own lyrics, as he had done so successfully in the past, he began collaborating with a young poet, George Cooper, probably late in 1862 or early in 1863. Cooper's texts were of a light-hearted, humorous vein, designed to appeal to musical theater audiences. Songs they wrote together include:
"There Are Plenty of Fish in the Sea" (1863)
"Kissing in the Dark" (1863)
"My Wife is a Most Knowing Woman" (1863)
"If You've Only Got a Moustache" (1864)
"Mr. & Mrs. Brown" (1864)
The pair also produced some Civil War Songs--"Willie Has Gone to War" and "For the Dear Old Flag I Die!" for example--but Foster's earlier songs found far more favor among soldiers and civilians from both North and South than did these later songs.
During these final years, Foster also wrote a group of Sunday school songs and hymns for song books published by Horace Waters. Some of them, such as "Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread," are lovely; "We'll Still Keep Marching On" is an example of the spirited homiletic style of many of these pieces, which were intended for children. Altogether, Foster produced almost one hundred songs during his final years in New York. While few are scarcely known today, one remains an all-time favorite--"Beautiful Dreamer," written in 1862 and published after his death in 1864.
Because he did not perform music professionally, as most songwriters did to support themselves, Foster himself was not well known to the public. Even during his lifetime, his songs were often referred to as folk songs. For example, during the Gold Rush "Oh! Susanna" became a kind of theme songs for the Forty-niners, who improvised countless new lyrics for the jaunty tune as they made their way to California. Today, most school children (as well as adults) still know the tune, but comparatively few can identify Stephen Foster as the composer.
Foster's only real income was the royalty he earned on sheet-music sales. Altogether he made $15,091.08 in royalties during his lifetime and almost nothing in performing rights (yearly average was $1,371 for his 11 most productive years). His heirs, Jane and Marion equally, later earned $4,199 in royalties, so that the total known royalties on his songs amounted to $19,290. Today, it would be worth millions.